A 100% recyclable interview with Oceanographer Sylvia Earle – Part II

(…continues from Part I)

Dr. Earle, what can you tell us about the pros and cons of alternatives to commercial fishing, like aquaculture and urban fish growing systems?

I think there’s real promise in aquaculture, growing sea creatures. I think not so much in the open sea as in closed systems. Think about all the aquariums around the world that have learned in the last fifty years how to take care of fish in a big tank, to look after their care and feeding, to keep them alive under captive circumstances. The phrase that really makes sense here, with the concern about high consumption of water, is that you get under these controlled circumstances “more crop per drop”. Which means that with a limited amount of water that you recycle and use over and over again, you can extract crop after crop of fish that grow fast, don’t mind crowding and eat plants.

Carp are sturdy fish that, when introduced artificially in habitats out of their natural range, can wreak havoc on the food chain and adversely affect an entire ecosystem. Closed, “figure-eight” aquaculture systems forestall unintended introduction of species and efficiently produce fish protein for human consumption. (Illustration by ClipArt ETC – http://etc.usf.edu/clipart)

There are already a few species that we know about that fit those characteristics: they’re hardy, they grow fast, they’re tasty. That’s another important thing, better taste good for people to want to eat them. So far they’re mostly fresh-water: tilapia, carp and catfish. There are many kinds of catfish, but the one that is commonly grown is a fresh-water species that can go to market in less than one year, from an egg. Like chickens. Tilapia can also go to market in less than one year. And they eat aquatic plants, grass-clippings, actually even lettuce.

I’ve seen it in Australia at James Cook University, and also in the Bahamas at the Island School, they have tanks where they grow tilapia. The tilapia, being animals, enrich the water with their droppings, that enriched water flows over a garden of vegetables that take up the nitrates and the phosphates and purify the water which then flows back to the fish. So you have a “figure-eight system”, with plants and fish that you can eat. And it circles around and around, with very efficient use of water and sunlight, efficient capacity to grow food in a small space. Now, to do it for agribusiness type of farming, that’s maybe a dream in the future, but for small people to do it for their homes and communities, it’s very realistic, it’s being done.

There are some stories about individuals in New York City, in their apartments high above the streets they have tanks where they grow tilapia. They grow fast, people can feed them lettuce and they get high quality protein. The only trouble is, people become attached to the fish! They’ll say, “I can’t eat him, I know him too well!”. But the possibilities exist that you can do this. In China they’ve grown carps in ponds for a thousand years. They have ducks on the surface that create the nitrates and phosphates that cause the algae to grow that feed the fish. The ducks lay eggs, both the ducks and the carps can be used for food. All around the pond there are plants growing, drawing on the phosphates and nitrates, everything from mulberry trees that produce silkworms to vegetables. It’s a matter of using our capacity to reason, to understand and work with nature, and to capitalize on these success stories and put them to work. People don’t have to starve, they don’t have to give up eating fish, but they may make different choices about what to eat.

And we should be looking to the sea for some good choices. I think there’s hope for shrimp farming. We’ve approached farming shrimp in a crude sort of way and it’s gotten a bad reputation. For good reason, because we tear down mangroves that are really more important than putting a little shrimp farm in. We should protect mangroves as if our lives depended on it, because they do. They’re great for protecting us from storms, they’re habitat for fish, nursery areas, they grab a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere and generate oxygen. They’re a part of our life support system and we really need to respect them. But if you move inland a bit, and have a contained system where you control the water, and perhaps grow plants in connection with shrimp, if we put our minds to work, the solutions are there.

But first we have to decide we want to do it. And realize that economically and ecologically this shouldn’t be an adversarial situation. It should be wholly, totally complimentary and integrated. A sound economy means a sound environment, a sound environment means we have a chance of having a sound economy. We tear apart the environment, the economy is going to fall apart in due course.

So it’s really much about choosing the right species?

Right. And raising carnivores just doesn’t make any sense at all, unless it’s for a high-end luxury market. Some people are working very hard and succeeding, to some extent, in raising sturgeon. Not because they want to eat sturgeon, but because they want to eat sturgeon eggs as caviar. That’s not feeding starving people, it’s a luxury market. It’s like raising mink for coats. They’re carnivores, too.

Caviar is a coveted delicacy, but is produced at huge cost and is not significant as a source of protein for the human species. (Wikipedia Commos image by THOR)

Can you please explain to us the concept of  “Hope Spots”?

For me there’s just one Hope Spot: it’s called Earth. And I think there’s great reason for hope. Because people, when they know, can care. They can’t care if they don’t know. In my lifetime the ability to communicate the nature of the world, and our place in it, has expanded. So there’s cause for optimism, even while we watch the deterioration of many things that are critical for our survival and for the places we love. There’s reason to say we have a chance and this is the time, we must do everything we can to protect what remains of the natural world that keeps us alive.

We can think about geoengineering to bring carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere or to reduce global warming. We can think about shortcuts too, but the main thing is, let’s protect what works. We’re losing a lot of the pieces here on this planet, things are going extinct. And with all due respect to all the engineers in the world, we don’t know how to put things back together once they’re gone. I think about the Monk Seal that was once in the Caribbean, in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s gone. It’s a piece of what made the Gulf and the Caribbean function as a system, it’s a big engine and one component is now gone forever. And we don’t know how to bring them back, because they’re extinct. But there are other things that are kind of taking its place, and that’s the whole beauty of biodiversity, the greater the diversity the greater stability and resilience it has.

I ask the question, if you think as I do that the ocean is the blue heart of the planet, how much of your heart do you want to protect? Whatever you say, ten, twenty or fifty percent, one percent is certainly not enough, and it’s less than one percent that we now protect. So I have initiated something called Hope Spots and identified critical areas. There are many places around the world, in fact all of it counts. How much of your body do you care about, how much of the world do you care about? I care about all of it. But there’s some areas that are absolutely vital if we are going to make progress toward the decline we’re now seeing. I identified the Gulf of Mexico as a Hope Spot even before the big oil spill of this last year.

Captive Caribbean monk seal, Monachus tropicalis, of unknown sex at the New York Aquarium, ca. 1910. Specimen originally captured from either Arrecife´s Triangulos (Campeche) or Arrecife Alacran (Yucatan) in Mexico (Townsend 1909). In 2008 the species was officially declared extinct after an exhaustive five year search for the seals, conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Marine Fisheries Service. (Source: Wikipedia)

The TED group, a nonprofit organization devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading”, has joined forces with you to help you spread information about your “big wish for the planet”. In what ways has the TED prize helped you further your cause?

TED (Technology Entertainment Design) started out 26 years ago as a group of big thinkers in Silicon Valley, California, trying to address what they saw as the big problems in the world and what they could do to help solve these problems. First it was just a small, private group, but they began to invite speakers and it grew quickly to what it is today, with thousands of people engaged both online and at an annual conference that takes place in California and elsewhere in the world. The concept of these “Ideas Worth Spreading” has grown into what happened to me, they select a few people to give the TED Prize to, they give you a nice check to help you further your cause, but also they grant you a wish, and it has to be a big wish. A wish large enough to change the world. My wish was to establish networks of protected areas in the ocean. On land too, of course, it’s protecting nature that keeps us alive. But the ocean has been neglected, a fraction of one percent of the ocean is now protected.

Click on this screen capture from Dr. Earle’s Mission Blue website to visit and learn more.

What is Mission Blue?

Mission Blue is the name we gave to an expedition that we took last year to the Galapagos, engaging about a hundred scientists, communicators, artists and policy makers, individuals who have the capacity to make a difference. And we’re trying to get behind this concept of Mission Blue and Hope Spots, a network of global protected areas within national jurisdictions, as well as in the high-seas, beyond where countries have some say about protection or not. That’s 64% of the ocean, it’s out there in the high seas.

In the Gulf of Mexico, Cuba, the U.S. and Mexico share a special interest in a little hourglass shaped body that’s in the center of the Gulf in the high seas, outside the jurisdiction of any of these three nations. But all three have a vested interest, so that space in the middle might be common ground that maybe we could agree to protect. And it would set a standard for what might be done on a big scale, say in the Arctic, where again there’s some high seas area in the center of the Arctic Ocean, beyond any nation’s jurisdiction. Or what about the Atlantic Ocean, The Pacific, the Indian Ocean? It’s a rationale that we could make if nations decide that we have a common interest in protecting the blue heart of the planet.

You have recently been working in Holbox, here in Quintana Roo, where people that used to depend on fishing are now turning to ecotourism. What can you tell us about the possibilities and dangers of opening up these areas to the world through ecotourism?

The key here is striking a balance. The same is true with fishing. We have just overdone the fishing. If our numbers were small, and our take from the wild ocean remained at a very conservative level, there would probably still be a great many fish in the sea, instead of this collapse we’ve been watching in a few decades.

With the Whale Sharks at Holbox, with the Galapagos Islands where I go often, with any place, it’s a matter of understanding how to work with the system without overwhelming it. The Whale Sharks are treasures and they should be able to provide a steady source of revenue that’s perpetual for the people. We should be able to keep the ocean there attractive for the Whale Sharks so they’ll keep coming back. They’re there because they feed on fish eggs and plankton so it’s a combination of protecting the source of what brings the Whale Sharks, making sure that the water quality is in good shape and that we don’t take too many of the fish, or else we’ll lose the Whale Sharks because they will have lost their lunch, the reason they’re coming in the first place.

Thousands of tourists travel to the Mexican Caribbean each year to take part in “swim-with-whale-sharks” experiences. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

We also need to show respect for the Whale Sharks. In the early days people thought it was great to grab a hold of their fins and take a ride, but again, when their numbers were large and our numbers were small, once in a while maybe people could do something like that. But for thousands of people to think they can go jump on a whale shark and get a ride, you can quickly kill the golden shark. Imagine that you’re a whale shark and treat them accordingly. Imagine you’re big Whale Shark busy eating and these primates come jumping in the water, thrashing around and getting in your way. It’s amazing that they’re as mild mannered and tolerant as they are, but we can disturb them and ruin what is a good thing for everybody right now. It’s good for the Whale Sharks that people are making a living by coming out to admire them, because if people were making a living catching the fish that produce the eggs that attract them there, that could be a problem for the Whale Sharks and the fish, and ultimately for the people.

So it’s all about knowing and that leads to caring and realizing that if there are more people trying to make a living doing this maybe there’s a way to spread it out, increase the price so that it’s more attractive for even fewer people. Maybe there are other ways, with restaurants and through accommodating the tourists. And there are other things you can do, like swim and enjoy the beauty of the place, and the great Mexican food under circumstances that are really special, and Holbox is a very special little island. Combine the Whale Shark experience with other activities like birdwatching or diving on a reef. We need to understand it’s important to keep the whole system intact, not just the Whale Sharks. We need win-win solutions.

Holbox, in Quintana Roo, Mexico. Whale sharks visit this area to feed during their summer migration and locals are turning to eco-toursim to make a living. (Map by Google Earth)

 (…to be continued)


Please visit Sylvia Earle’s website, Mission Blue, to learn more about the condition of the world’s oceans and how you can make a difference.


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